Travis Hirschi
Travis Hirschi

The first study began in 1965, when Travis Hirschi gathered data on 4,077 teenagers in Richmond California, testing and developing his “Social Bonding Theory” of crime. Hirschi’s theory went on to become what is described as the most influential criminological theory of the current era, stimulating more research than any other.

His theory did not ask why people do break the law, but why people don’t break the law. His answer is that adolescents decide not to commit crimes according to the degree of their attachment to their parents, their commitment to conventional success, their involvement with conventional activities, and their beliefs in conventional moral values.

In his studies of the police records, self-reported criminal activities and attitudes of these teenagers, Hirschi showed the importance of their attachment to parents not in directly preventing crime, but it shaping commitment, involvement and belief. Even with unconventional or criminal parents, Hirschi found, with confirmation from police records, that having strong attachments to one or both parents acted to prevent delinquency, and even increased respect for police. 

While Hirschi showed what parents did right, Cathy Spatz Widom pioneered in systematic research on what parents did wrong. In tracking 908 children in 1967-71 in a Midwestern US city who, before the age of 11, had been victims of criminal abuse or neglect by responsible adults in, she compared them to a matched sample of 667 control group children for whom there was no criminal record of abuse or neglect. Over the next two decades, she found that maltreatment of children increased their adult rates of crime and violence, but that most maltreated children had no criminal record as adults. Her evidence suggested a more complex relationship between parents and maltreated children than the conventional “cycle of violence” theory, that violence begets violence—which it did not, in three out of four cases. Her work extended Hirschi’s evidence that even bad parenting can have good features, that even criminal parents might build strong attachments with their children, which lead children to obey the law. 

The work of Per-Olof Wikström, who is the first Swedish criminologist to win the prize, offers the most detailed evidence on the dynamic processes by which children negotiate their daily lives between their parents and peers. In a ten-year study of 716 families in the ethnically diverse city of Peterborough, England, Wikström developed his own Situational Action Theory in expanding greatly the earlier findings of his co-winners. Measuring behaviour by day-by-day tracking of where the adolescents were, with how many peers, in what criminogenic or morally hazardous environments, Wikstrom was able to test predictions of criminality in new ways. His data included exposure to morally hazardous situations, as well as teenagers’ moral beliefs and propensity to commit crimes. By frequently interviewing parents as well as children, Wikström added major insights into the role parents play in preventing juvenile crime by restricting access to criminogenic peers and shaping the morality of their children.


Travis W. Hirschi

Travis W. Hirschi (born in 1935 in Rockville, Utah) is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968. His previous appointments included the University of Washington, University of California at Davis, and the State University of New York at Albany School of Criminal Justice. He is a Fellow and past President of the American Society of Criminology, and winner of its highest prize for scholarship, the Edwin Sutherland Award. His major works include “Causes of Delinquency” and “A General Theory of Crime”.

Cathy Spatz Widom

Cathy Spatz Widom (born in 1945) is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. After she received her Ph.D. from Brandeis University, she taught at Harvard, the University of Indiana, and the State University of New York at Albany’s School of Crimnal Justice. A Fellow of both the American Society of Criminology and the American Psychological Association, she won the 1989 American Association for the Advancement of Science Behavioral Science Research Prize for her paper on the "cycle of violence”.

Per-Olof Wikström

Per-Olof Wikström (born in 1955 in Uppsala, Sweden) is Professor of Ecological and Developmental Criminology, Director of the Centre for Analytic Criminology, and Fellow of Girton College at the University of Cambridge. After receiving his PhD in criminology from the University of Stockholm, he worked at both the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention and the Swedish National Police School. He is has been elected a Fellow of the British Academy, the American Society of Criminology, and of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. The winner of the American Society of Criminology’s Sellin-Glueck Award for international contributions to Criminology, he is Director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study.